When all else fails

You’ve probably heard the saying “When all else fails, pray!” I’ve heard it said many times and I’ve even seen it printed on a bumper sticker. What a stupid idea it is! If prayer works, if we can actually speak to the God of this universe, if he cares for us and desires to give us what we need, then why wouldn’t we do it first? Why make it a last resort? Why ignore prayer until we’ve exhausted all our other options?

And of course, if prayer doesn’t work, if we’re just speaking into the air, if it’s nothing more that mystical wishful thinking, then why bother praying at all? We may as well use our time more productively.

So how do we know if prayer is of any use? Does God hear our prayers, does he care about our requests, and does he respond to the things we ask? The answer to this doesn’t lie simply in my (or your) personal experiences. To be honest, for me, sometimes it seems like God does hear and respond, and at other times he seems awfully silent. Rather, the answer is to be found by looking at what we know about Jesus. Jesus believed in prayer, and he made a priority of praying. I take it that no one knows God better than Jesus, so he’s worth observing on this matter.

Firstly, Jesus, himself prayed to God. In his life on earth he was dependent upon his Father in heaven. When he was absolutely flat out and people were demanding more and more of his time, he took time out to pray.

Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed. (Mark 1:35)

Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed. (Luke 5:16)

Secondly, Jesus showed his dependence upon God by praying at key times in his life and ministry.

When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:21-22)

One of those days Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God. When morning came, he called his disciples to him and chose twelve of them, whom he also designated apostles. (Luke 6:12-13)

So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face. Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.” (John 11:41-43)

Thirdly, Jesus spent time praying for others.

But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers. (Luke 22:32)

My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. (John 17:20)

Finally, as Jesus came to the climax of his life and mission, as he faced crucifixion and then hung upon the cross, he prayed.

Jesus went out as usual to the Mount of Olives, and his disciples followed him. On reaching the place, he said to them, “Pray that you will not fall into temptation.” He withdrew about a stone’s throw beyond them, knelt down and prayed, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” (Luke 22:39-42)

Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And they divided up his clothes by casting lots. (Luke 23:34)

Jesus called out with a loud voice,“Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” When he had said this, he breathed his last. (Luke 23:46)

These examples show us that Jesus believed that prayer was real and important. He knew  God, the Father, more intimately than any of us and he spoke with him and depended upon him. Prayer, for Jesus, was not always getting what he wanted, but humbly submitting to the will of his Father, even in the face of his own death upon the cross.

What’s more, he encouraged his followers to pray, and to pray with humility.

And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. (Matthew 6:5-8)

Jesus taught his disciples how to pray, providing them with a model that focused on the will of God.

This, then, is how you should pray:

Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one. (Matthew 6:9-13)

Jesus reminds us that God can be trusted to give us what is genuinely good for us, in answer to our prayers. We may not get the answer we want, but we can trust God to give us what we need.

Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened. Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! (Matthew 7:7-11)

I have learned to trust Jesus, especially on the matter of relating to God. For this reason, I will continue to pray, bringing my requests before my Father in heaven.

In recent times I have been moved to pray more for others. I’ve been asking God to work in the lives of family and friends, and even complete strangers. To comfort and encourage people. To heal people or take away their pain. To make himself known to people, to break through their cynicism, or to answer their questions or doubts. I’ve been challenged and encouraged to pray that God will bring honour upon himself in the way he deals with me and others. And I’m learning, day by day, to trust that his answers will be the best ones.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThese last few months, I have been deeply humbled to know that so many have been praying for me and my family. People we’ve never even met from all over the world have been interceding for us. We don’t deserve this attention. But then, God wants to hear these prayers, even more than we are prepared to ask them. So please continue to pray.

And if you’re not persuaded there is a God, or that you can have a relationship with him, or that he hears our prayers, or that he wants what is truly best for you… I recommend you pray… just start talking! And check out the evidence in the Bible, starting with biographies of Jesus in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke or John.

God, if you’re there, then please make yourself clear to me. If you can hear me, then please let me know. Please answer my doubts. Please help me to know the truth about Jesus, about myself, and how I can have a real relationship with you.

On my way to heaven

Have you ever been given a gift by someone you’ve only just met? Last year my friend and colleague in Christian ministry was given two copies of the same book by a person they didn’t know. It was a short book written by the guy’s recently deceased minister, Mark Ashton. The book was called On my way to heaven. My friend had no idea why he was being given one copy of this book, let alone two! That is, until he returned to Australia and a few days later discovered that I had been diagnosed with a ‘terminal’ cancer. He realised, in God’s providence, that he’d been given a copy for me too!

This is another little book that punches well above its weight. It’s only 24 pages long, and printed in large type. (Makes it easier for me to keep reading and reviewing books!) I would assume that the title of this of this book will be very confronting to many. Either because it presents us again with our mortality. Or, perhaps, because it seems so presumptuous – how can anyone be sure they are headed for heaven? Isn’t this is an arrogant claim?

On this latter point, the answer is very clear in the Bible. A Christian is not a religious person, trusting in their moral performance to be offered a place in heaven. Rather a Christian is one who has received forgiveness from God for having ignored him or pushed him away. This forgiveness is a completely free gift from God, that can be received by all who put their trust in Jesus to lead them and rescue them from God’s judgment. The New Testament makes it clear that the death and resurrection of Jesus, events that took place in human history, have a direct bearing on you and me today. Jesus died to pay the cost for our rejection of God, and God raised him to life to destroy the power that death has over us. A Christian is not a ‘self-righteous’ person, but one who has been given a pardon by God.

On the former point, Mark Ashton wants to do exactly this – get us to think seriously about where we’re headed. The one thing we can be assured of in this life is that one day it will come to an end. It may be later, or it may be sooner than we’d like. But it will happen. It often surprises me how much time and energy people (including me) spend distracting themselves with the unimportant and the trivial. We get all focused on ourselves, our hobbies, our bits and pieces, our aspirations for wealth or achievement or recognition, and we give little or no time to considering the profound question of what happens when we die. Please, if you you are avoiding this question – don’t! It’s too important!

Ashton was diagnosed with an incurable cancer of the gall bladder in 2008, informed that he had only months to live, and he passed away in 2010 at the age of 62. His book offers us a window into his thinking, his struggles and his faith over the final months of his life. I was deeply moved as I read how he faced death as a Christian believer.

The core of this book is Ashton’s conviction that resurrection awaits him. This is the basis of his hope and it is grounded in the evidence of the early witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus. He does not dread death, or seek to extend his life at all costs, but rather sees resurrection as a prospect to be welcomed.

He doesn’t gloss over the hardship of sickness. Throughout his life he, like most of us, expected to recover from whatever sickness or injury he experienced. He’d rest up until he got better. But he came to know that he wasn’t going to get better, the cancer wasn’t going to go away, and that he was dying day by day. This is something I’ve also been coming to grips with. Physical pleasures such as eating, exercising, or resting, no longer offered the enjoyment they once did. He came to appreciate that they were God’s gift for a time, but not for all time. His love, affection, and appreciation for his wife and family was deepened over this time, but be also came to grasp that relationship with God gave meaning to them all.

Ashton is honest about his failures and foibles in life. He gently points out that funeral eulogies rarely present an honest picture of the person’s life. They end up magnifying the good points and excluding the bad (and maybe this is appropriate). But he leaves us in no doubt that he wants to be remembered not as a flawless saint, but as a forgiven sinner.   God enabled Mark Ashton to be focused on others as he faced his final days. This is his prayer:

It is my prayer for my family and friends, that my death will be for them all a great strengthening and clarifying of their relationship with Jesus. Amen. (p24)

I agree!

Don’t waste your cancer

I mentioned to a friend at the Oxygen conference last year that my father had cancer and was receiving treatment. He then asked if I’d read a little booklet by John Piper called Don’t waste your cancer. I hadn’t heard of it and, to be honest, I found the idea of the book a bit too intense. Maybe he picked up on this because soon after the conference he made contact with me to apologise if he’d been insensitive in speaking of it.

What I didn’t realise at the time was that I also had cancer growing inside me. I don’t think I’d even begun to put myself into my father’s shoes, to understand what he was going through. ‘Cancer’ was just a word – mind you a scary word. If I’d got hold of Piper’s book and given it to my father back then, it would have been rather academic, simply passing on the ideas of someone else. Of course, things are very different now. I’ve read the book, and passed it on ‘carefully’ to one or two others, including my dad (who is now in remission).

This was the first book that I read after being released from hospital – helped by the fact that it is only 15 pages long! It crams 11 chapters into its tiny size, but each one packs a punch, and really needs to be considered slowly and carefully. I don’t think this is a book for everyone. It’s useful and true, but I think to make the most of this book, you need to have begun to experience something of the pain and tragedy that gives rise to it. This is a booklet for Christians with cancer or some other serious condition, for their families and carers, for Christian doctors or medical staff, for pastors, and for people who want to seriously encourage those struggling with their suffering in a context of faith.

Let me offer you a snapshot of the booklet by outlining the title of each chapter:

We waste our cancer…

  1. if we don’t hear in our groanings the hope-filled labor pains of a fallen world.
  2. if we do not believe it is designed for us by God.
  3. if we believe it is a curse and not a gift.
  4. if we seek comfort from our odds rather than from God.
  5. if we refuse to think about death.
  6. if we think that “beating” our cancer is staying alive rather than cherishing Christ.
  7. if we spend too much time reading about our cancer and not enough time reading about God
  8. if we let it drive us into solitude instead of deepen our relationships with manifest affection.
  9. if we grieve as those who have no hope.
  10. if we treat our sin as casually as before.
  11. if we fail to use it as a means of witness to the truth and the glory of Christ.

In some ways I’m not ready to review this book. I’m still working through each of the points. It’s one thing to give intellectual assent to an idea and another thing altogether to live it out. But I have come to appreciate the tough love in many of these reflections.

God has been pushing me to look forward to heaven. When life is so good here and now, it is hard to consider eternity with him as something better. He has been helping me to move through the pain and grief, to focus less on myself, and to appreciate him and all that he’s given me. God has been helping me to love what is good and hate what is evil, even as I see it in my own heart. I’m realising more and more that my hope lies not in medical advances, but in the death and resurrection of Jesus. I’m reminded that grief is normal, appropriate and healthy, but that I can grieve with a hope grounded in God’s promises.

Journey with cancer DV 20 Mar 2012

Dear family and friends,

Today is day 14 of my 3rd chemo cycle. The cycle starts with a day in hospital attached to a drip with nasty chemicals being pumped into the body. Then a roller coaster for the next 3 weeks, before you do it all over again. In theory, and based on previous cycles, I should be feeling pretty good and getting back into a semblance of normal life. But here is the problem – patterns, statistics, predictions, and even past experience, do not determine the future.

I ‘should’ be out and about, busy with work, and getting back into some gentle exercise. Instead, I’m lying in bed (with a laptop) trying to get rid of a chest infection and praying it doesn’t develop into anything worse. In fact, the past couple of days have made me rather fearful – fearful that I would end up in hospital again with pneumonia, fearful that I might compromise the chemo, fearful that something worse might happen.

Fiona reminded me last night that these things can often be two steps forward and one step back. Sometimes even the other way round for a while. I would do well to keep putting into practice the word of God that I believe:

6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:6-7)

We are being reminded again and again that only God knows what’s around the bend and he calls us to trust him. There is a Latin phrase, deo volente, or DV, which means ‘God willing’. In days gone by it was common for Christian people to use these words as they spoke of their plans. You don’t hear it much these days, but I’ve begun using it more and more as I appreciate that it is God who is working out his good plans and purposes. In fact, this whole experience of getting cancer has highlighted how much I am not in control of my life and circumstances.

Back in December everything pointed to us moving to Darwin to begin the second major chapter of our lives. We had people on board with us, support structures and finances in place, a house to move into, kids enrolled in schools, tenants for our house in Canberra, a successor in my role at church, belongings in transit, and excited about the future. And then… a visit to the hospital changed everything. These verses from the Bible came to mind very powerfully:

13 Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” 14 Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. 15 Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.”
(James 4:13-15)

My life has been given to me by God. He calls me to make plans and to consider the circumstances and to do things wisely. But he also calls me to act with humility, to know that I belong to him, and that I can rely on him to do what is in my very best interests. Even when I would prefer things not to be happening! We’ve been learning this more and more.

But does this mean that all our preparations last year were going against God’s will, that somehow we were being disobedient and straying off the path? No, I don’t believe so. Our desire was to contribute to growing followers of Jesus in the Northern Territory. This desire was placed in our hearts by God and as we read the Bible we were reminded that this is pleasing to God. We sought wise council from many, and took years to come to our decision as a family. There was and is a big need, and we were drawn to respond. That need continues to exist and we pray that our passions to move north will be filled by others, or yet that I will be healed and one day serve God in that place, DV.

So is it possible to see the hand of God in what has happened? Absolutely. God has been at work in our hearts and minds, moving us to depend upon him more deeply than ever before. He has encouraged us, and literally thousands of others to pray. He has raised questions in the minds of friends that have nudged them to consider what we believe about God. He has deepened our empathy and love for people suffering under similar and worse circumstances. He has used our words to encourage others far and wide in their own struggles. He has caused us to appreciate our family and friends and church all the more. He has reminded us to number our days.

We can see God’s kindness in many of the details. My cancer was discovered because a doctor friend had the awareness to rush me to hospital when I complained of numbness and breathlessness. It was a time when all our family were at home. I had finished my final series of preaching at church. The church had already gone through a careful process of choosing my successor. It didn’t happen while we were on the road to Darwin. We still had our home in Canberra to move back into. Our friends have taken extraordinary care of us. Our church has continued to provide for us, and have welcomed my continued ministry among them. We’re receiving top shelf medical attention. I’m even allowed a tv in the bedroom! And there is so much more!

Let me tell you about the weekend just gone. It was a special time for our family (only we missed Matt). Fiona and Grace both entered large teams in the Cancer Council’s Relay for Life. They set up camp at the AIS athletics track and walked for 24 hours to raise money and awareness for cancer research and support. I wasn’t that keen to go – who wants to be surrounded by people with cancer? But the relay had a carnival vibe about it, with music, dancing, stalls, fancy dress, and lots of people having fun in the sunshine (& rain). Some ran lap after lap, others walked as best they could. I did a few laps at different times of the day, and must have been the slowest walker on the track each time.

FamilyThe first lap was exclusively for people who had cancer (either now or previously) and for carers. I wore a sash saying ‘survivor’ and members of my family wore sashes saying ‘carer’. It seemed strange to wear the sash, as though I should’ve had to go into remission to ‘deserve’ it. But, I have cancer, I am alive – so I guess I’m a survivor! As we walked the lap it was very moving to be clapped by hundreds of people lining the track, including many friends in Grace and Fiona’s teams. I shed a few tears that I kept well hidden behind my sunglasses! I was glad that I’d gone along.

We joined in another event on Saturday – a commissioning for friends of ours, Klaus and Grace & MorphJudith and family, who are heading overseas. As we were making our plans to plant a church in Darwin, they were planning further afield in Germany. It was a thrill to share with them as they count down the days to leaving. Klaus is German, and it is his great passion for his kin to know the good news of eternal life. As one friend reminded me on later, we had two celebrations over the weekend – one of life here and now, and the other of life for all eternity. Our prayer is that people will value their lives here and now, but not so much as to ignore God’s wonderful invitation of life forever with him. Some people seem to think that Christian faith is ‘life-denying’. Our experience is the exact opposite. Jesus came so that we might have life in all its fulness – now and forever.

Thank you again for your encouragement and support. The chemo roller coaster is a tough one, but made much easier in the knowledge that people are praying and helping us in so many ways. There is one cycle to go and we don’t know the plan after that. It could be more of the same, or part thereof. It could be something radically different. Our desire is for the treatment to completely destroy this cancer, and for us to be able to make new plans for a life beyond cancer, deo volente.

With love,

Dave (and Fiona)

Naked God

naked_godIt seems winter has come early this year! I spent most of yesterday in front of our open fire reading Martin Ayers’ book Naked God. I’d had a few people recommend it, and I’ve been on the lookout for good books to give friends who are interested in finding out more about what genuine Christianity is all about. I found this a very readable and helpful book, and enjoyed reading it in a couple of sittings. If you are keen to begin exploring Christianity, without getting lost or distracted by all the junk that often gets added, then this book is a good starting point.

A quote from the book explains the title and the aim of the book:

In his famous book and TV series, The Naked Chef, it wasn’t Jamie Oliver who was naked, it was the food. Jamie Oliver succeeded in stripping down the food to its bare but glorious essentials.

And that’s what we need to do with God. We need to look at the evidence and find out what it uncovers. We need to strip away any false ideas we’ve developed from our culture or background, and reveal the truth. This is the truth about God, exposed. This is Naked God.

Martin Ayers begins by arguing a case for why the God question really matters at all. He does this by first considering the alternative – a world where there is no God – and what this means for our day to day lives. He probes the implications for meaning, purpose, freedom, morality, life and death. In the first part of the book he explores where atheism leads, drawing upon some of the claims of Richard Dawkins and others. His aim here is not to prove whether atheism is true or not, but simply to highlight the real implications of holding to this view of the world and the difficulties associated with seeking to live with a consistently ‘naturalistic’ way of life.

The second part of Naked God focuses heavily on the historical person of Jesus. He defends this approach by highlighting the extraordinary life, teaching, and impact of Jesus. This focuses ultimately on Jesus’ unique claims to be, quite literally, God among us. His untimely death at a young age by crucifixion, and the claims by his followers that he had been raised from death, are shown to be the linchpin in understanding Jesus and his relevance for us. In doing this, he tackles problems people may have with the reliability of the New Testament, the transmission of manuscripts, and the claims to uniqueness over against other world religions. While this is a relatively brief book, the arguments are well made and references to more substantial works are offered to the serious researcher. Ayers also addresses the ‘gut reactions’ many have against Christianity, such as its perceived social regressiveness, or the taking away of personal freedom, or the appalling track record of many who claim to be followers of Jesus.

The final section of the book speaks to the reader in a more personal way. Ayers explores the barriers we have to really knowing God. Importantly, he demonstrates that religious self-righteousness is just as big a blockage to relating to God as the choice by many to ignore God and shut him out of their lives. However, the book takes us beyond the problems and difficulties that stand in the way of knowing God, and invites us to take hold of what God is offering. And this is a genuine personal relationship with the One who made us. This relationship is shown to be a step into reality, not an escape into wishful thinking or myths and legends. It makes a big difference to life now, and beyond the shadows of death into eternity.

Macarisms

What are macarisms? And why have I called this blog by that name?

The silly answer is that people call me Macca and these are going to be things that I want  to communicate! But the deeper answer lies in the meaning of the word. It is simply an English version of an ancient Greek word meaning ‘blessing’ or ‘to be blessed’. There are various forms of this word in the New Testament, the most famous being Jesus’ words in the sermon on the mount (Matthew 5): Blessed are the the poor in spirit… those who mourn… the merciful… and so on. The specific word ‘macarism’ is found in Romans 4:6-8:

David says the same thing when he speaks of the blessedness (macarism) of the one whom God credits righteousness apart from works:

Blessed are those whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the one whose sin the Lord will never count against them.

My desire for this blog is that people will be blessed as they read and think about life. My hope is to help people to reflect on the good life, to stop and consider what’s really worth having.